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Why farmers may, or may not, adopt nitrogen-efficient technologies

When nitrogen finds its way from agricultural fields into water bodies and the atmosphere, it doesn't just degrade water quality and contribute to climate change. That lost nitrogen also isn't being used to grow crops, and farmers are losing money.

“There’s a lot of energy and money that went into making the nitrogen, so those are wasted resources,” says Laura McCann, an associate professor at the University of Missouri. “If it’s not being used to make corn, there’s a loss of profitability to the farmer.”

So in an effort to reduce environmental damages while also increasing profits, new technologies are being developed to keep nitrogen in place and available to crops. But will farmers adopt these technologies? A new study by McCann in the Journal of Environmental Quality aimed to answer that question.

The paper is part of a special section on "Improving nitrogen use efficiency in crop and livestock production systems" in JEQ.

McCann and her colleague, Catharine Weber of Sustainable Environmental Solutions, wanted to know what factors might convince United States corn farmers to adopt–or ignore–nitrogen-efficient technologies. Using data from surveys, the researchers created a model that would predict which characteristics of farmers and their farms might correlate with adoption of three specific technologies: nitrogen soil testing, plant tissue testing, and nitrogen inhibitors.

Nitrogen soil testing provides farmers with information about the amount of nitrogen in their soil that is available to plants. The test, done before planting, is not included in standard soil tests, so it must be done separately at an additional cost. But it can provide very useful information, especially for farmers who may have extra nitrogen in their soils already.

“Maybe they’ve been applying manure or maybe they had soybeans the previous year,” says McCann. “There might be some nitrogen still there. So they can then account for it and subtract that from how much they put on that year.”

Plant tissue testing is done when the crops are growing. Samples of the leaf tissue is collected and sent to a lab so that the farmer knows how much nitrogen is getting into the plant. If levels are lower than they should be, additional nitrogen can be applied.

Nitrogen inhibitors are the third technology considered in the new study. While these inhibitors come in different forms, they all work to keep nitrogen in the soil, where it can be used by the crops. “Nitrogen inhibitors prevent nitrogen from being converted into forms that can easily leach or evaporate so that it’s there for the plant,” explains McCann.

Overall adoption rates of the three technologies varied. Nitrogen soil testing was most widely used, with an adoption rate of 21%. Nitrogen inhibitors had the next highest rate of 10%, while plant tissue testing was lowest at only 3%. Plant tissue testing appeared to the researchers to be a sort of peak practice–if farmers weren’t already using other technologies, they weren’t likely to adopt plant tissue testing. Therefore, says McCann, it makes little sense to talk to farmers about plant tissue testing if they have yet to adopt nitrogen soil testing.

“You’re better off trying to talk about the benefits of nitrogen soil testing first, and then when they’re comfortable with that they may want to go to the higher level practices,” she says.

The adoption of these technologies by farmers can be affected by many factors. Some that the researchers considered were age of the farmer, size of the farm, cost of implementing the practice, other management practices the farmers were using, and their sources of information about nitrogen.

Several of these variables were correlated with the adoption of nitrogen-efficient technologies. For example, younger farmers were more likely to adopt the practices. Irrigation correlated with nitrogen soil testing and the use of nitrogen inhibitors. And farmers who use conservation tillage were more likely to adopt use of nitrogen inhibitors.

“There are reasons conservation tillage was positively correlated with adoption of the nitrogen inhibitors,” says McCann. “It’s more important to keep nitrogen in place with conservation tillage since you don’t end up incorporating the nitrogen as much and there is a lot of organic matter.”

There was another variable that was strongly correlated with adoption of the technologies–the farmer’s source of information. Farmers who didn’t receive information or those who got information from fertilizer dealers were less likely to adopt nitrogen-efficient technologies. Meanwhile, farmers who talked with consultants or extension specialists were more likely to use the practices.

This correlation between adoption of the technologies and information source could provide some insight into methods for increasing adoption rates. For those who don’t seek out information, it may be important to find other avenues for reaching them. Channels such as radio ads or public service announcements may reach such farmers.

For those getting their information from fertilizer dealers, McCann sees an opportunity to increase adoption of one of the technologies. “Extension staff could maybe develop programs for fertilizer dealers to help them sell nitrogen inhibitors,” she explains. “They’d have a new product to sell, and this product would have benefits for both the farmers and the wider environment.”

And in the end, that would help achieve the goal of nitrogen-efficiency technologies–maintaining profitability for farmers and others in the industry while protecting the environment.